Spain’s official coronavirus death toll rises above 40,000

The grim milestone was recorded after the Health Ministry added 329 victims to its daily report on Wednesday

Doctors perform a tracheotomy on a Covid-19 patient in critical care in Barcelona's Del Mar Hospital.
Doctors perform a tracheotomy on a Covid-19 patient in critical care in Barcelona's Del Mar Hospital.Emilio Morenatti (AP)

Spain has now exceeded 40,000 official coronavirus victims since the start of the pandemic, according to the latest report from the Health Ministry. Wednesday’s data saw 349 Covid-19-related fatalities added to the overall death toll, taking the total to 40,105. The ministry also reported 19,096 new infections, a slight rise on the figure for the day before. The official number of cases confirmed by testing now exceeds 1.4 million in Spain.

The number of deaths fell from the day before, when the data point hit a new record high in this second wave of the pandemic. Despite the decrease, from 411 to 349, the fatalities are still in line with figures during the first wave in the spring, when the population of Spain was in a full lockdown. “It may take some time before we see this figure fall,” warned Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts (CCAES), on Tuesday.

The figures also provide a picture of which areas of Spain are under greater strain during the second wave of the pandemic

The pressure on the country’s hospitals continues to rise, with 32% of the intensive care unit (ICU) beds occupied by coronavirus patients. There are major variations from region to region, with 60% occupation in La Rioja and more than 50% in Aragón for a week now. On the other end of the scale are the Canary Islands and Galicia, with 10% and 13%, respectively. Given the situation, regions such as Asturias and the Basque Country have prepared extra ICU beds in converted spaces.

There are currently 21,051 Covid-19 patients hospitalized across Spain, 2,394 of them in ICUs. In the previous 24 hours, according to Wednesday’s report, there were 3,093 new hospital admissions, up from 2,270 on Tuesday. The occupation rate of normal hospital beds by coronavirus patients stands at 16.79% across the country.

The 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants has been falling slightly during November, but continues to be very high at 512 according to Wednesday’s report.

Non-essential businesses in Andalusia are facing restrictions in a bid to curb contagion. This sign mourns the "death of the hostelry sector" in Spain.
Non-essential businesses in Andalusia are facing restrictions in a bid to curb contagion. This sign mourns the "death of the hostelry sector" in Spain. MIGUELANGELMOLINA (EFE)

Regional differences

Three regions of Spain – Asturias, Murcia and Andalusia – as well as the North African exclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla are notifying more single-day deaths than at the height of the first coronavirus wave. And the Aragón region is not far behind.

Asturias has notified an average of 18 single-day deaths over the past week, compared with its peak of nine during the first two weeks of April. Murcia has been reporting 12 deaths a day, higher than the average of seven in early April.

In Andalusia, the difference is less stark. The southern region is now notifying an average 53 single-day fatalities, compared with 47 in April. And in Aragón, the 26 average daily deaths matches the region’s April figures.

These comparisons are based on average single-day deaths over a seven-day period, as reported by regional authorities and compiled by the Health Ministry. Right now the national average is 284 daily deaths, nearly the same figure as during the third week of March, when Spain was nearing its first-wave peak.

There is one major difference between then and now, and that is the rate at which death figures are growing. In the spring, the number of reported fatalities was doubling in less than five days. Right now the growth rate is under 5% a day.

Reporting problems

Problems with official data make it difficult to compare regions in great detail, but they do provide a picture of which areas are under greater strain during the second wave of the pandemic.

Some of them are reporting more than half as many single-day deaths as they did in the spring peak. This is the case in the Basque Country, Castilla y León and the Balearic Islands, besides the previously mentioned regions.

It is also worth remembering that during the first wave of the pandemic, many deaths were reported late by overstretched epidemiology services, or never at all because many people were dying without getting tested for the coronavirus.

Reporting problems persist during the second wave, despite methodology changes that make it easier to tell the difference between date of death and date of notification. The new system requires regional authorities to update figures on a daily basis, and this is not always done swiftly.

Hospitals at their limit

The situation in Spain’s hospitals can help understand the current death figures. In more than 10 regions, these centers are at high risk levels based on the Health Ministry’s criteria. Fourteen regions and the exclave city of Ceuta this week reached their highest hospital bed occupancy rate since August.

Also, the kind of patient being admitted to hospital is changing. In late summer, patients were on average younger and showed milder symptoms. But the number of patients over the age of 80 is now growing again. “They are older patients, with more associated conditions, just like in March and April,” said Gonzalo Tamayo, an anesthesiologist at Cruces Hospital in Bilbao.

The virus has also made a comeback in senior care homes, where there are at least 6,300 active infections, more than three times the August figure, according to data collected by EL PAÍS.

A look at these figures suggests that some regions that suffered less during the first wave of the pandemic are now notifying more deaths comparatively. This is the case of Asturias, Andalusia and Murcia, for instance.

In Madrid, however, the opposite trend is on display: the region reported as many as 304 single-day deaths in the last week of March, and that number is now 60.

English version by Simon Hunter and Susana Urra.

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